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Catherine Pearce

Catherine (Kate) Pearce is a Senior Security Consultant who performs security services (professional computer hacking) for Cisco.

Kate Pearce

What do you do on an average work day? 
I don't have an average work day, as a consultant it changes from day-to-day, week-to-week, project-to-project and customer-to-customer. 

My place of work can be equally varied - as a consultant I need to go where the work is, so I work either from my home office, at the Cisco office in the city, or I travel to customer locations around the world.

In general though, I have a few main types of day:

  • Assessment customer engagement - I hack into their computers or networks to test their security and report on what I find and how to improve security.

  • Improvement customer engagement - I work with a customer to understand their challenges and aims to make things better. Commonly this will mean helping them improve their software development processes and tools to produce more secure software or deal with vulnerabilities faster.

  • Research and development - I study (a) technologies and techniques that I need to be able to give security recommendations on, (b) emerging technologies or problems and what they mean for security, and (c) develop new services or their supporting training tools and documentation. 

  • Business development - In the end, everything I do needs to both make enough money to be improved and be found by customers in order to help them. I meet people, understand their needs and where we can help.   

What did you study at school? And after high school? 
At high school I didn't do brilliantly, but I did get three science courses in my final year (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics).  

My University studies were unusually broad, literally from atoms and transistors through to policy and governance, but I didn't plan it that way. I initially went to do Electrical Engineering, then shifted to Computer Engineering when I found I really enjoyed programming, finally I shifted to Computer Science as I found I had a real knack for software and systems. After my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, I did a postgraduate Diploma in Computer Security and Forensics, and a Masters in Computer Science on a security-related research topic.

Was your study directly related to what you do now? 
My studies were very related to my work initially, as early in my career I was focusing on selling my technical skills. As my career progressed I worked on my 'soft' skills, my presentations, communication, writing, visual communications, and empathising with people. My studies got me in the door, but once there my success came from my communication, self-management, and soft-skills.     

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Studies are crucial to getting that baseline credibility, but they are far from enough. Work on expanding your social networks, worldviews, and what you can have a meaningful conversation about. The best jobs come from who you know, and who knows you, the worst thing you can be is invisible. Take every chance you can to get your work, words, and thoughts published. 

Go to everything related to your interest, meetups, industry events, conferences. Submit your work as soon as you can, it's the job of the program committee to reject submissions, don't do their job preemptively. You must have a social media presence, but make sure it's controlled and fits your personal branding. 

Make sure you expand your experiences and especially work on your communication. Effective communication isn't about what you say, or how well you explain a topic, it's about making the change in mindset or approach that is needed.  

It's painful and scary, but the things I recommend to have some exposure and experience in:

  • Public Presentation
  • Effective writing (both journalistic and formal) 
  • Sales techniques
  • Project Management and planning

I can't recommend programs like Toastmasters highly enough as ways to develop these skills.  

What are some of your career highlights so far? 

  • Speaking in front of over a thousand people at Kiwicon with flames on stage.
  • Giving my most unorthodox ideas about the crossover between biology and security in a room of people, co-presenting with my wife, and being told that they will never look at security the same way again. 
  • Hacking into numerous very interesting technical systems.
  • Seeing HUGE companies listen to our work and begin to rethink security as an opportunity to do things right, rather than a cost of doing things wrong. 

Kiwicon

Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand? 
The world we live in is increasingly reliant on technology and that same technology is advancing on the back of the science underpinning it. New Zealand is a highly educated society a long way from the rest of the world, and we can leverage technology and education to offer unique value to the world - while closing the distance. If we don't someone else will, and we won't just be left behind, we will still be a long way away.

Curiosity is powerful, and we should all aim to empower ourselves through it. If you don't inform and build your own viewpoint you will of necessity take someone else's, and that other viewpoint will always be slanted by the view and desires of the person providing it.  

Society, the economy, democracy, and even the entire existence of humanity itself rest on us making good use of, and decisions with, science and technology. Blaming previous generations won't fix things, and relying on others to make choices on your behalf doesn't get us the world we need. We all have a responsibility to take the education and skill we have to make opportunity for everyone. 

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? 
The world we live in is rich and complex, and so is society. The complexity and difference is what enables them to adapt and survive. Monocultures tend to act in predictable ways, and fail in catastrophic ones. Women often have exposure and insights that men don't, and they make foundational decisions for their families that influence generations thereafter. 

Women are more than half of the world population, we MUST be involved. There is a STEM gold rush on right now and we have to be intimately involved, because this gold rush isn't just about wealth, it's about health, happiness, and home. Don't ignore the fact that STEM pays well, it's really easy to "do what you love" when you don't have to compromise on what you need. 

Further, with the rise of automation many of the highly technical skillsets that are right now in vogue will be automated away - potentially even STEM skills. What will matter is the ability to interrelate and innovate in ways that cannot be easily systematised. Women have been, and still are, expected to be those who teach, communicate, and reconcile. The very excuses used to keep us away from the technical, will be the very things that empower us to influence society in a high automation future.  People may give jobs to machines, but the people in positions of influence won't be giving control to machines any time soon - those who can translate the technical into the personal will be those who own the future.    

Myself, I feel a responsibility to be a visible presence in STEM because I am a powerful counter-example to those who claim women 'can't'. I challenge every other woman to stand up and prove to the world, and to prove to herself, that she belongs at the forefront - not because she's a woman, but because she is excellent in her field.

Catherine Pearce - also known as Kate - is a Senior Security Consultant who performs security services for Cisco, a multinational internet services and technology company (a professional computer hacker).

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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